In The Fast Lane

In The Fast Lane: Most Improved after ISM Raceway

Photo by: Christian Petersen

The West Coast Swing continued in Avondale, Arizona at ISM Raceway on Sunday, March 11th for the TicketGuardian 500, where a familiar face earned his 40th career victory.

A rookie scored his best finish, while his teammate scored the first top-5 of the season for the organization.

Two organizations put all four of their teams inside the top-10, one for the first time in the organization’s history.

No. 1 Chase Elliott – Chase Elliott earned a third-place finish after running inside the top-10 majority of the day.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver scored the first top-5 in 2018 for the organization. The team has failed to find speed to compete with the Fords that have dominated and competed for the top positions so far this season.

Elliott, who finished second one year ago, earned stage points in Stage 1 (third) and Stage 2 (ninth). Elliott is tied with Alex Bowman in the points standings for 16th, 77 points behind points leader Kevin Harvick.

No. 2 Daniel Suarez – Daniel Suarez finished eighth at ISM Raceway, his best finish of 2018.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver ran as high as fifth throughout 312 laps. He gained ten positions from his 18th place finish one year ago.

Suarez sits 22nd in the points standings, ahead of veterans Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray, and Kasey Kahne.

No. 3 William Byron – William Byron earned his best finish to date after previous finishes of 23rd (Daytona), 18th (Atlanta), and 27th (Las Vegas).

Byron led his first laps in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series before finishing in 12th place. Byron led for 15 laps, Laps 195 through 209.

Byron sits 21st in the point standings, 100 points back.

Can the rookie better his finish on the third and final stint in the West Coast Swing? Byron has one top-5 finish at Fontana, a fifth place finish in the Xfinity Series in 2017.

No. 4 Kurt Busch – Kurt Busch earned his second top-10 of the season with a tenth place finish at ISM. Busch led six laps in addition to earning the Stage 2 victory on Sunday.

Busch, who has one career victory at the one-mile track, improved his finish by 11 places from 2017.

Busch gained two spots in the standings. He now sits 11th, six points behind Aric Almirola in tenth, and -51 from Harvick.

No. 5 Denny Hamlin – Denny Hamlin rebounded from a 17th place finish one week ago to earn his third top-5 of the season.

Hamlin earned stage points in Stage 1 when he finished fourth, while his teammate Kyle Busch took home the stage victory.

Hamlin led 33 laps in the final stage of the event before bringing his FedEx Freight Toyota home to a fourth place finish.

Hamlin is the highest ranked driver in the points of this week’s Top 5. He sits sixth in the standings, 31 points behind.

Notables: The teams of Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing both had all four teams earn top-10 finishes. It is SHR’s first time in history at the feature.

Matt DiBenedetto finished in the 25th position after taking to social media earlier in the week for sponsorship. DiBenedetto had Zynga Poker sign on as a primary, while Hamlin, Harvick, and Darrell Waltrip were secondary sponsors.


In The Fast Lane: Most Improved after Las Vegas

Photo by: Matt Sullivan

The start of NASCAR’s three race stint, known as the “West Coast Swing,” began with a quick start at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Last week’s winner Kevin Harvick picked up where he left off, while another champion struggled before the green flag even dropped.

This week’s Top 5 dominated, rebounded, and maintained consistency for finishes of 12th or better.

No. 1 Kevin Harvick – Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 Jimmy John’s Ford team did a complete 180 from one year ago, when a crash was the result of finishing 38th out of 39 cars.

Harvick continued his dominance in Las Vegas to earn his second win this season, leading a stellar 214 of 267 laps – the most by any driver at the 1.5-mile track.

Harvick took the lead from polesitter Ryan Blaney on Lap 2 of the Pennzoil 400, and soon began to lap the field. Harvick put half the field at least one lap down before the end of Stage 1.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver earned his 100th career victory through NASCAR’s three national series, crossing the finish line 2.906 seconds ahead of Kyle Busch and 13 seconds ahead of third place finisher Kyle Larson.

No. 2 Jimmie Johnson – Jimmie Johnson started in the back on Sunday after failing pre-race inspection three times. The Hendrick Motorsports driver remained focused and determined, gaining nine spots in the first stage while fighting with handling issues.

After putting fresh tires on before the start of Stage 2, Johnson continued toward the front. The No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet finished in the 20th position at the end of the second stage, two laps behind leader Harvick.

Johnson rebounded to earn a 12th place finish, his first top-15 of the season after crashes at Daytona and Atlanta resulted in finishes of 27th or worse.

Johnson sits 29th in the standings after three races. Will more improvements continue for Johnson? A top-10 at ISM Raceway would be just what he needs going forward, a top-5 could put Johnson on a steady pace back into familiar territory.

No. 3 Kyle Busch – Kyle Busch finds himself among the most improved after a second-place finish, a gain of 20 positions from last season.

Busch’s day in Sin City was much quieter than in 2017, when he confronted Team Penske’s Joey Logano on pit road post-race.

Busch led twice for a total of ten laps. He sits fifth in the standings, along with Kyle Larson, 31 points behind Harvick, who is the new points leader.

No. 4 Paul Menard – Paul Menard earned his second top-10 of the season at Las Vegas, finishing in the ninth position.

Menard’s stats through three races have steadily improved from years past.

The last time the Wood Brothers Racing driver scored two top 10s within the first three races was in 2012, when he finished sixth in the Daytona 500, and seventh two week’s later in Vegas.

Menard sits ninth in the standings as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series continues on the West Coast Swing to ISM Raceway in Avondale, Arizona on Sunday, March 11th.

No. 5 Erik Jones – Erik Jones has a lot that he could be happy about heading into this weekend. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver is coming off his first top-10 of the season, after finishing 11th at Atlanta and in the 36th position at Daytona.

The 21-year-old has made consistent improvements since the season opener and is headed to the very same track where his No. 20 Toyota sat in Victory Lane last November with Matt Kenseth.

Can Jones earn his first MENCS victory and secure his way into the playoffs with an early victory? If the JGR driver builds on his performance, we could see the young star in victory lane sooner rather than later.


In the Fast Lane: Most Improved after Atlanta

Photo by: Kevin C. Cox

The weather at Atlanta Motor Speedway hindered the start of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, causing a two-hour rain delay before taking the green on Sunday afternoon.

A veteran overcame pit road issues to score his second victory at the track in an astonishing time gap since his first, all while paying tribute to the late driver he replaced.

This week’s Top 5 were steady contenders, one driver used a different strategy from the rest to advance his chances at an early season victory, while others were consistent in earning stage points.

No. 1 Denny Hamlin – Denny Hamlin went from the bottom of the grid to the top of it, jumping 34 spots from a year ago when a broken rear-end ended his day in the 2017 Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.

This year the Joe Gibbs Racing driver used a two-pit-stop strategy during the final stage in an attempt to earn him a win at the 1.5-mile track. Hamlin’s first win at Atlanta came in 2012, and he has a 22.8 average finish since the victory.

No. 2 Kevin Harvick – Kevin Harvick’s recent dominance at Atlanta has proven that it was only a matter of time before the Stewart-Haas Racing driver returned to victory lane there.

Almost two decades separate the 2014 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion’s two wins at the track. Harvick won in just his fourth start in 2001 for Richard Childress Racing driving the No. 29. Harvick returned to victory lane in the No. 4 saluting Earnhardt just as he did 17 years ago.

Harvick was one of several drivers that dealt with pit-gun problems while being serviced on pit road. Harvick overcame the trouble to earn the 38th MENCS victory of his career.

No. 3 Aric Almirola – Aric Almirola has not wasted any time showcasing his talent and deservingness with the No. 10 Smithfield Ford at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Almirola started 11th and finished in the 13th position, but was a top contender throughout the event. Almirola earned stage points in two of the three stages, finishing fifth in Stage 1 and eighth in Stage 2. He sits ninth in the points standings, tied with Paul Menard with 66 points.

No. 4 Austin Dillon – Austin Dillon had a quiet, but effective day – earning a 14th place finish. Dillon ran as high as sixth, with a 15th average position throughout 500 miles.

Dillon has failed to earn a top-5 or top-10 at the oval since becoming a full-time driver in 2014, but he has made some gains. Dillon improved his finish by 18 positions from one year ago.

The Richard Childress Racing driver sits sixth in the standings, 19 points behind new points leader Joey Logano.

No.5 Clint Bowyer – Clint Bowyer earned his first top-5 finish at Atlanta after finishing third on Sunday. Bowyer was the runner-up after Stage 1 and finished ninth in Stage 2, before earning his first top-5 of the season.

Bowyer jumped eight spots in the standings, from 13th to fifth. Three points separate him from Hamlin in third, and 15 from Logano.

Can Bowyer break a 187-race winless streak to score his first win in almost five years at Las Vegas?

Notables: Daniel Suarez excelled at Atlanta before falling back to a 15th place finish, the lowest position for the 26-year-old throughout the day. He was as high as third and earned a 10th place finish at the end of Stage 2.

Several drivers, including defending MENCS champion Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Alex Bowman, and Harvick, had problems with the new mandatory pit guns. Truex’s team went through three guns because they failed to work properly.  Will the problems be consistent or will they be resolved early in the season?

In the Fast Lane: Most Improved after Daytona

Photo by: Robert Laberge

The 2018 NASCAR season kicked off to an incredibly start in the 60th running of The Great American Race at Daytona International Speedway.

An iconic number returned to Victory Lane after being pushed by another, while rookies and veterans alike were the victim of the Big One.

This week’s Top 5 most improved drivers earned their place by making impressive moves, improving their positions from a year ago, and leading laps and earning stage points.

No. 1 Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. – The Richard Petty Motorsports driver finished a career high second in his first start in the Daytona 500. Wallace, who started seventh, remained up front throughout the event and became the highest finishing African American in the event. Wendell Scott held the previous record for his 13th place finish in the 1966 Daytona 500.

Wallace pushed Austin Dillon to the win Sunday evening and avoided the Big One, despite contact with Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin in overtime.

The RPM driver can take the momentum and confidence gained and apply it next weekend at Atlanta. Wallace has three Xfinity starts at the 1.5-mile track, his best finish is sixth from one year ago.

No. 2 Austin Dillon – Austin Dillon stated he doesn’t remember much about the 1998 Daytona 500, in which he stood in Victory Lane next to the late Dale Earnhardt.

The 27-year-old will have a reason to remember this year’s event in twenty years.

Dillon restarted fourth in an overtime finish, but gained the lead after making contact with Aric Almirola, which sent the Stewart-Haas Racing driver spinning.

The win is Dillon’s second in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Dillon now holds victories in two of the four “Crown Jewel” events. Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600 in 2017.

Dillon has proven to excel under pressure of the famous No. 3 in recent years, earning eight top-5s and 18 top-10 finishes since 2016.

No. 3 Ryan Blaney – Ryan Blaney dominated by leading 118 laps and winning Stage 2. The newest driver of Team Penske came back to earn a seventh place finish despite sustaining damage in two multi-car wrecks.

Blaney heads into Atlanta, where he has an average finish of 21.5, as the points leader. Can he improve his results, and will it be enough to keep the points lead over teammate Joey Logano?

No. 4 Michael McDowell – Michael McDowell found a new home at Front Row Motorsports after losing his ride to Kasey Kahne at Leavine Family Racing, but he picked up right where he left off with another stellar performance at a restrictor plate track.

McDowell finished ninth in his 250th start. It is his second straight top-10 at Daytona and sixth top-10 of his career.

McDowell wasn’t in contention for the win at the end, but remained mid-pack for majority of the race. He was as high as fifth and secured stage points in Stage 1 (sixth) and Stage 2 (fifth).

No. 5 Chris Buescher – Chris Buescher last scored a top-5 in August of 2016, when he finished fifth at Bristol. The JTG-Daugherty Racing driver quietly climbed inside the top-5 Sunday to earn his best finish at the 2.5-mile track.

Buescher scored a top-10 during the 2017 Coca Zero 400. He sits ninth in the points standings, 25 points behind the points leader.

Notables: Justin Marks earned his best career finish at Daytona with 12th place, one lap down from the leaders. Marks has four MENCS starts and led his first lap in the series on Sunday.

William Byron finished 23rd after spinning on Lap 190. Byron was also involved in a 9-car incident on Lap 60 that ended the day for Erik Jones, Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez, and two-time Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson.

Danica Patrick was the victim of a multi-car wreck on Lap 102 and finished in the 35th position. The race was Patrick’s last NASCAR event. She is scheduled to participate in the Indy 500 to bring her racing career to an end.